Grief is the pain that is experienced when we lose something of value, such as when a loved one is lost through death. Children and adolescents may experience grief in response to a number of situations including the loss of a loved one, parent separation or divorce, the death of a pet, friends moving away or moving house, school or country.
Children and adolescents may experience a number of different emotions as part of the grieving process such as anger, sadness, guilt, confusion, shock, numbness, despair or yearning. It is important to be aware that children and adolescents grieve differently to adults and may grieve in “doses” with some periods of overt grief and other periods where they may appear unaffected. Children may also hide their grief in order to protect a parent or loved one who is also grieving and may feel distressed or confused by the grief of others in their family (this particularly applies to younger children). Children and adolescents often have a greater need for security and connectedness to others in times of grief and may display their grief outwardly through expressions of anger, poor performance at school, disruptive or regressed behaviour or report physical symptoms such as stomach aches.
Communication during times of loss is particularly important for assisting children and young people to adapt to losses effectively. Parents and guardians play an important role in supporting children through these times and with support children can learn essential skills for responding to and coping with other losses that will happen throughout their life. It is important to be open, honest and direct when speaking to children and adolescents about the details of situations where a death has occurred. Children and adolescents commonly have many questions about death and may require information to be repeated frequently over time before it can be fully processed. It is important to give children space to share their thoughts, feelings and questions about death and their concerns about how their life will change now as a result.
Sometimes the death of a person that the child knew can trigger anxiety about other people close to them dying. The child may worry about their own death, or may become more clingly to caregivers and fear separation from those caregivers. In some circumstances such as this, grief can develop other issues.
Often situations that cause grief for children cause stress or grief for parents as well. It is important that you look after yourself so that you can be emotionally available to support your children. It can be helpful to advise teachers and other caregivers of the child’s circumstances and to prepare your child for questions or comments they may receive from others.
TREATMENT FOR GRIEF IN CHILDREN
It can also be helpful to seek support from a trained professional to assist your child in coping with their grief effectively, especially in the following circumstances:
1) Their grief is prolonged
2) The child expresses thoughts about engaging in unsafe behaviours
3) The child appears to be worrying excessively about their own safety or the safety of their caregivers, or the child is trying to avoid separating from their parents in situations where they were able to separate easily previously.
How Can Grief Treatment Assist Parents?
- Understand how children of different ages might experience grief differently and how to support their needs based on their stage of development.
- Think through questions children are likely to ask and how to respond to them in a helpful way.
- Consider how to best maintain structure and routines to enable their child to feel safe and secure, as well as developing new rituals and routines as needed around important events such as birthdays and anniversaries.
- Consider how their own emotional responses might impact on their parenting and therefore on the child.
- Develop a support system and prioritise self-care.
- Communicate with your child effectively so that they do not feel they need to hide their feelings or avoid speaking to you about their feelings.
How Can Therapy for Grief can Assist Children and Teenagers?
- Understand that grief is normal and that these feelings will pass
- Cope with worries and change that are associated with death
- Express their grief in different ways and find ways to remain connected to loved ones who have died
- Express their feelings without concern for burdening others who are grieving
- Understand and manage their feelings using helpful, adaptive coping strategies
If you would like to find out more about our treatment for grief in children, or to book an appointment with one of our child clinical psychologists who provides treatment for these difficulties, please email or call the clinic on 02 9438 2511.